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How social networks are changing the way we live and how we do business

By Melissa Withers
LinkedIn. Facebook. Twitter. Bebo. MySpace. Second Life. Flickr. Nexopia. Orkut. LiveJournal. To the uninitiated, this roll call of Web 2.0 social networking tools might sound like child’s play when, in fact, these forums have become a social and professional necessity for millions of people around the globe. Users of social networking platforms share instant, play-by-play communications with one another as though they were standing in the same room, even when thousands of miles apart. These networks move information with unbridled speed, creating a kind of global village where news travels fast. If you work in an industry where information is a top commodity, sitting on the sidelines of social networking simply isn’t an option anymore.

Today’s social networking platforms are organized around everything from social causes, gaming, employment, shared experience, politics and fantasy to nothing terribly specific at all. Do-it-yourself blogging sites, mobile hand-held devices, and new instant communication tools allow anyone with a network connection to create a digital persona and communicate across most geographic and cultural boundaries.

It’s easy to understand how these tools might be used to spread the word about a house party, rally voters around a candidate or help you find a date, but can they really boost your career? Technologist Josh Klein has been following emerging technologies for more than a decade. Klein has built a career by taking Web technologies apart (legally) and reassembling them into something with new value. Klein has become an expert in leveraging social networks and open Web platforms to tap into new markets and convert connectedness into career-building.

When Klein, a designer and digital strategist living in New York, wanted to publish a novel, he placed his manuscript on Creative Commons, a Web site that allows readers to comment on, edit, revise and alter his work. He also made the novel available for download onto the iPhone, where it garnered 12,000 downloads a month. Using existing networking tools, he created a fan base and significant online buzz, a move that ended in an international distribution deal with Amazon — and it didn’t cost him a dime. Klein now helps clients like Microsoft, Oracle, Frog Design, Nokia and Johns Hopkins University develop new media strategies to open and communicate with new markets.

“There really is no historical parallel for the kind of meaningful connectivity today’s Internet supports,” says Klein. “The biggest challenge isn’t getting connected, it’s keeping up with what’s already out there. Exceeding the bounds of your existing network is critical to solving problems, and while from a technical perspective this has never been easier, it is becoming an ever greater personal and intellectual challenge as the digital world continues to grow.”

It’s not just cyber geeks like Klein who are flocking to online networks. As of June 2008, more than 90 million people were active on Facebook, a networking site where users maintain a personal profile and communicate with friends about social and professional happenings.

Still think that social networking sites are for kids? More than 30 million working professionals have profiles on LinkedIn, a business-oriented social networking site with a decidedly more formal tone and emphasis on leveraging connections for career growth. LinkedIn raised nearly a billion dollars in 2008 from investors who believe that headhunters, job seekers and corporate resource managers will pay handsomely for a well-groomed network.

Then there is Twitter, a free social networking and “micro-blogging” service that allows users to send and receive updates, known as tweets. Limited to 140 characters in length, tweets encourage users to send frequent and to-the-point messages about current activities. Twitter does not publicize statistics and usage estimates vary, but reputable sources estimate there are 10 to 15 million people using the tool today with millions joining each month.

For recent Johnson & Wales University alumna and Web developer Brittany Turcotte ’08, mastery of new networking tools is second nature. “Just recently, my company was looking for information on a new software suite and we had questions,” she says. Rather than taking time to make phone calls or search the Web, Turcotte sent out a “tweet” on the instant messaging service Twitter. “Within a minute I had 20 replies from trusted people in my network. I found the information we needed.”

It comes as no surprise that teaching people to effectively leverage these platforms is a top priority at universities and business schools across the world. JWU reference librarian and student instructor, Talia Resendes, is teaching Foundations in Technology at JWU. Alongside lessons in Excel and Photoshop, Resendes challenges students to use contemporary social networking tools to design a digital portfolio that brings a compelling focus to their academic and personal accomplishments. “We use the digital portfolio project to help students create an appropriate digital persona and challenge them to be creative in how they apply these tools to communicate effectively with the world,” she notes.

In addition to teaching, Resendes is finishing up a thesis examination on commerce activity in Second Life, a virtual world where people socialize, participate in activities, and create and trade virtual property and services. More than one million people currently inhabit Second Life’s virtual world. Although Second Life is among the most fully immersive of today’s social networking forums, it is not as fringe as it might sound. “Media tends to focus on users who use the virtual world to do things they can’t do in real life,” says Resendes. “But most people are using these tools as a digital extension of their real selves, to create relationships, make professional connections and engage in commerce to make money.”

What’s most interesting to those who study technology is how most social networking platforms deliberately blur the lines between professional and social purposes. For the skilled user, this convergence can be a powerful one and many smart companies are creating outreach and marketing strategies that embrace the casually intimate vibe of social networking.

“Many friends of mine are also colleagues in my industry and we use social networking services not only to keep in touch, but to find work and solve work-related problems. It’s definitely all converging,” says Bryan Veloso ’04. Veloso’s worked with networking leaders like Facebook and today is one half of the technology consulting firm, Revyver, where he manages projects for several social networking sites and services. “People and companies now depend on these services to either genuinely or at least look like they’re connecting with their target markets. Some have created whole identities just by using these services.”

The future of social networking is not without its hurdles. Many of the most popular tools were created using venture capital with hopes that these services would be financially profitable. Getting people to pay for social networking services has been difficult and the verdict is still out on making money through advertising. With so many options, users can move from product to product to avoid fees or abandon platforms that have grown stale.

However these issues play out, it is unlikely that the future will be one without social networks. Even casual users find that participation in the better of these forums can powerfully extend their personal and professional reach to create tangible value in the non-digital world. 

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Top 10 Countries Represented by Our International Students: People’s Republic of China, South Korea, India, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Nepal, Turkey, Thailand, Sweden, Russia and Vietnam